Tuesday 27 July 2021

Challenging Perceptions of "Traditional University Education"

There are three critical and fundamental developments underway in higher education today:

  1. Confusion about the place of technology in education, which manifests as a crude "face-to-face vs online" discussion, but which reveals a much deeper confusion about education, learning and tool-use more generally.
  2. Confusion about the moral status of traditional disciplines in light of increasing awareness of their colonial roots, and acknowledgement of the effect that traditional disciplines (and those that uphold them) play in reproducing structural inequalities in society which have their roots in patriarchy and racism.
  3. Confusion about the purpose of education and its usefulness - made worse by the increasingly transactional nature of learning within most universities.
No discipline is safe from any of these. Technology obviously has made its presence felt over the last 18 months or so, and yes - we are all "zoomed out". But are we zoomed-out because of Zoom, or are we zoomed-out because of what we've done with Zoom? Even if the pandemic hadn't happened, we were probably staring at screens just as much as we had been during it. Perhaps we weren't quite so rigidly staring into a camera resisting the temptation to pick our noses, but we were staring at screens nonetheless. So what is it about our perception that was different during the pandemic? What was different in our physiology? This is a question about perception - technology blurs the bounds of conventional categories.

Perception about categories concerning the moral status of education are also changing. Black Lives Matter and MeToo have heralded fundamental changes to the way we look at institutions and the behaviour of people in them. What was it about the film industry that let Weinstein do what he did and get away with it? What is it about architecture education that allows for casual racism and sexism (as students at the Bartlett this week have revealed: Bartlett launches investigation after racism and sexism allegations (msn.com)) Why does traditional music education teach about a load of white male composers, or teach theories developed by other white men who had a vested interest in using their theory to promote the supremacy of their own culture? Some might be dismayed by the iconoclasm or the no-platforming - but iconoclasm always involved a fundamental perceptual shift. That's what matters.

Then there is the perception of the value of education itself.  This is the difference between what is perceived in the university and what is perceived in the outside world. Do they fit? Does one prepare for the other? Or does the university simply allow intelligent young people, who - if thrown into the world would work it out without a university - are instead allowed to be cossetted away from reality for a huge fee, are stressed from pointless assignments and grade obsessions, and set up with unreasonable expectations when they leave? This is going to become a bigger question as the world moves on and universities don't. 

What are we to make of these perceptual shifts? What's to be done with the "traditional academy"?

At the root of all of this is the relation between perception and knowledge. Universities have never taken perception that seriously. Their game was always knowledge because knowledge was measurable, structured and certifiable (even if this is notoriously inaccurate).  But knowledge sits on perception, and in the end, it is perception and its close cousin, "judgement", that matters. 

I wonder if, despite its best efforts (for example, reflective learning - although hardly a success) traditional education can't enter this confused realm of perception and judgement. Perhaps only direct engagement with the real world can do that. And educationally, only personal experience and experiment with one's own life can really produce the kind of learning which can equip the young with sufficient flexibility and good judgement to navigate a world where the traditional categories are vapourising before us. To quote Marion Milner, we now are all in a "Life of One's Own", and the focus of our inquiry is not on mastering traditional disciplines as much as finding enough space in our lives for individuation and creativity.

Monday 26 July 2021

The Empirical Phenotype

One of the realisations that has been creeping up on me is that the view of ontology which I subscribed to for many years, Critical Realism, is the wrong way round. My accidental journey as an academic began 20 years ago in the University of Bolton, and one of the first things I did there was to explore the "ontology of technology". Clive Lawson had a conference in Cambridge on this topic which I didn't go to, but read about it and subscribed to the "Realist Workshop". This set me reading the work of Roy Bhaskar - and that was where I got my ontology from.

In Bhaskar's ontology, "reality" is envisaged as a set of embedded layers. The "empirical" layer concerns that aspect of reality which is directly experienced. Obviously this includes the observations of scientists who discover laws of nature. The empirical in this scheme is the most circumscribed layer of reality. Above the empirical is what Bhaskar calls the "actual": this is the world of possible events, which may or may not be experienced, but which result from deeper mechanisms in nature which may be unknown to our scientific understanding. At the deepest level, the "real" is the totality of "generative mechanisms" which exist independently of human ability to observe them. Discovery of these generative mechanisms, which Bhaskar argues can be either "intransitive" (existing independently of human agency) and "transitive" (existing through human agency), is the point of inquiry in the physical and social sciences. It's through this basic scheme that Bhaskar builds an impressive argument to say that scientific inquiry and emancipatory politics are tied together: Critical Realism was a kind of lifeboat for Marxists disillusioned by what had transpired in the name of Marxism.  

I liked this because I found that the emphasis on "mechanism" led to some powerful parallels between cybernetics and Critical Realism. However, the notion of mechanism is problematic. If we ask what a mechanism is, can we say that it is any more than an idea: something produced by an observer, not something inherent in a thing. This observer problem haunts Critical Realism as it does cybernetics. 

If a mechanism is an idea, what is an idea? It seems as something arises (or is constructed) through a process of inquiry which is akin to a kind of "dance with nature". More importantly, there is a dance with some unknowable, and ambiguous environment. As human beings, we know that we do this. But we also see similar dances going on in the microscopic world of our immune system, or in the fertilization of an egg, or the development of an embryo. It seems that everything dances - or at least, we know ourselves to dance, and perceive in observations of nature similar dances. The resonance between self-knowledge and perception of nature is enough to justify the word "everything".  

The fundamental nature of dance is an experiment. But the fact that all living things dance, and that the dance of ourselves seems to relate to the dance of our own cells, we should ask:

  1. Who had the first dance?
  2. How does it all hold together?

It is surprising that the study of dance is not taken more seriously. Only Maxine Sheets-Johnstone has really made a profound contribution. But because everything dances, the study of any particular dance can shed light on other levels of dance. From the dance of white blood cells to a tango, or just the music of the tango, fundamentally there is resonance, and the resonance too is part of the dance. When we dance, we move together with something or someone. We create multiple descriptions of the same thing. But what's the point? 

If a dance didn't stop, we would be exhausted. Indeed, our exhaustion can be what brings things to a pause. Dances have a beginning and an end, and the middle is a progress from one to the other. In the end, there is no dance - nothing. Everything is in the process of creating nothing. And nothing is made with resonance - multiple descriptions of the same thing.

Making nothing is not a trivial thing. It requires the seeking-out of new descriptions which can resonate or interfere with existing descriptions so that eventually things "cancel out". I suspect this seeking out of new descriptions or differences is what might otherwise be called "agency" - it is what calls us to act. We are always being called to act to create a clearing, and our response can range from meditation to rage. 

Another word for "nothing" is equipoise. The dance of cells is driven by this principle. They seek equipoise with an ambiguous environment, maintaining their boundary and garnering sufficient energy to continue their empirical journey. This is the feature of any phenotype: as far as life is concerned, the first cell had the first dance.  And the biological phenotype gave us observation by virtue of the fundamental distinction of the boundary between itself and its environment. Observation always requires a boundary. Before the first cell, did anything observe?

But making nothing may well have been going on before this. Newton, Einstein and Dirac all amount to nothing - but we can only intuit that through our biological lens of thought. And, perhaps most importantly, that biological lens of thought refers back to the "first dance", as does all the dancing of every cell, organ, plant, bacteria, etc. 

And when we experiment, this is what we are dancing with: not only physical nature, but evolutionary history. So Bhaskar is wrong: the empirical is the most fundamental, most active layer of reality, which underpins the principle of making nothing. It is tied to physiology. We might imagine deeper mechanisms and make observations of matter through particle accelerators or (eventually) quantum computers - but our imagination sits on a physiology which is already doing the thing that we see in our physics. And the politics of science? A society which fails to create the conditions for making clearings in the minds of its members will destroy itself. It is education's job to do this - right now we fill peoples' minds with noise.